Union goes to highest court in fight for survival
The Commercial, Stevedoring, Agricultural & Allied Workers Union (CSAAWU) has approached the Constitutional Court to overturn decisions by the Labour Court ordering the union to pay legal fees amounting to R600,000.
CSAAWU represented farm workers in the Western Cape strikes in 2012/13. Most of these strikes for increased wages were unprotected and many workers lost their jobs.
CSAAWU fought and lost two dismissal cases in 2014 in the Labour Court, one against Steytler Boerdery and a second against La Maison. The court ruled that the union must pay the legal fees of La Maison and Steytler Boerdery farms, on the grounds that CSAAWU and the workers displayed “intransigent” and reckless attitudes in participating in an unprotected strike. .
CSAAWU applied to the Constitutional Court for leave to appeal against the costs orders on 19 June.
The Socio-Economic Rights Institute (SERI), which now acts for CSAAWU, says the substance of the Labour Court judgments is not in dispute. But CSAAWU says neither the union nor the workers can afford to pay the fees and the judgment will discourage access to the courts by workers.
Despite fundraising efforts such as “Keep CSAAWU Doors Open” raising R150,000, the union faces bankruptcy.
Deputy General Secretary Karel Swart said CSAAWU wanted to achieve justice for the “poorest and vulnerable workers” and appealed to “the Constitutional Court to set aside this devastating cost ordered against a small union.”
He said the Court judgment was “a serious attack on the existence of farm workers’ organisations like CSAAWU.”
According to the 2011 study Farmworkers’ Dismal, Dangerous Lives by Human Rights Watch (HRW), only 3% of farmworkers are represented by a trade union in the Western Cape.
“We are trying to keep CSAAWU alive,” said SERI attorney Bhavna Ramji.
CSAAWU is an unaffiliated union deriving funds chiefly from membership fees of R10 a week. Members are not able to pay the fees regularly.
“The simple fact is that if the costs orders stand and the two farmers in whose favour they were made choose to execute them (one, Steytler Boerdery, has already taken steps to attach CSAAWU’s office property, finding goods worth just over R3,000), CSAAWU will close down,” Ramji said.
GroundUp has asked for comment from the farmers via their advocate but had not yet received a response at the time of publication (this article will be updated when responses are received).
CSAAWU’s case was based on the labour law principle that states the court must consider fairness when deciding whether to order the losing side to pay legal fees.
“Fairness looks at the financial situation of the losing side, the importance of maintaining good and equal labour relations between employee and employer, and the good faith of a party in bringing litigation (amongst other things). If CSAAWU loses, then this will be the third [time a] court in post-Apartheid, constitutional South Africa which has let them down. It would indicate that the farmworkers in the Western Cape, who produce the wine, fruit and meat that we eat and drink, stand alone in their pursuit of equal treatment and fair labour practices,” Ramji said.
CSAAWU supported the Joostenberg family who recently won a case against their eviction off the farm in Montagu that they had been living on for decades.
A correction was published to this article. It originally stated that we tried to contact the company via their attorneys. In fact it was the advocate that was contacted, and our message never got to the company (and possibly not to the advocate either). We apologise for the error.
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